MINNEAPOLIS -- On Sunday, the Minnesota Vikings played to a tie with a Green Bay Packers team that didn't look much different than theirs. The Packers were missing several key starters on defense, had a group of talented receivers who weren't able to do much without a quarterback to get them the ball, and relied primarily on a bruising running game that gained 196 yards despite running 19 times into a box that contained seven or more defenders.
It was just the second time in their previous nine trips to Lambeau Field that the Vikings had done anything other than lose to the Packers. The only other time was in 2009 -- not coincidentally, the only other time when the Vikings could make a convincing argument they entered the game with a quarterback playing as well as or better than his Green Bay counterpart. But Sunday's advantage was caused mostly by Aaron Rodgers' absence, which is a temporary problem for the Packers. And the stark difference in their rivals -- NFC North standard-bearer with Rodgers, middling team without him -- should crystallize why the Vikings will likely continue searching for a quarterback this offseason.
I've heard from a number of readers throughout the season who've pointed out that quarterback is far from the Vikings' biggest problem. And for the record, I agree with you. They've been done in more by declining or inexperienced players on defense than they have by anything else this season. But that argument doesn't really explain why the Vikings need to go hard after an elite quarterback. More than anything else, it's about how quickly that kind of a player can cover up the rest of their problems.
Look at the Packers. With Rodgers, they were 5-2, despite missing receiver Randall Cobb, linebacker Clay Matthews, tight end Jermichael Finley, running back Eddie Lacy, cornerback Sam Shields, cornerback Casey Hayward and safety Morgan Burnett for parts of the season. Without him, the Packers are 0-3-1, having lost to a team that started 0-6 (the Giants) and tied the team they'd dominated at home (the Vikings). They went 26-6 in the previous two regular seasons despite having a pass defense ranked 32nd and 22nd in yards allowed, and they won a Super Bowl with him despite putting 15 players on injured reserve and barely running for an average of 100 yards a game in 2010.
And it's not just the Packers who have used great quarterbacks to cover up flaws. The 2011 New England Patriots rebuilt their group of skill position players around Tom Brady, allowed the second-most yards in the league and still went to the Super Bowl. The team they lost to, the New York Giants, had the league's worst rushing offense, its eighth-worst scoring defense and Eli Manning. His older brother Peyton is currently quarterbacking a 9-2 Denver Broncos team that has allowed the seventh-most points and yards in the league, and made his two Super Bowl appearances in Indianapolis with teams that finished 18th and 31st in the league in rushing offense. His loss in the 2010 Super Bowl came to a New Orleans Saints team that had the league's seventh-worst rushing attack, its 13th-worst defense and rode Drew Brees past Brett Favre and Manning to a championship.
So while we can talk about incremental improvements from Christian Ponder and discuss the Vikings' myriad defensive problems -- both of which we've done here -- the scale of quarterbacking championship teams need is drastically different from what the Vikings have. Unless Ponder or Josh Freeman somehow turns into that kind of quarterback, the Vikings in all likelihood will head out on another search for one. I'm convinced their decision-makers know the hunt for a quarterback isn't over until they've unearthed one who can be elite.
The power of that kind of a player should have been obvious in all the years Vikings fans have watched Rodgers and Favre burn them in Green Bay. And it should have been even more clear by the absence of a great quarterback on Sunday.